John N. Felsher's Speck Fishing Adventures
Lake Pontchartrain possibly holds
the next Louisiana record trout
TOP: Capt. Dudley Vandenborre and Jen Carroll, a professional
angler and marketer, show off a speckled trout Jen caught near the
Interstate 10 bridge crossing Lake Pontchartrain. LOWER LEFT:
Capt. Dudley Vandenborre holds a trout he caught near the old railroad
trestle crossing the Rigolets by Slidell, La. LOWER RIGHT: Jen Carroll,
a professional angler, shows off the trout she caught while fishing near the
Hospital Wall, remnants of a Civil War hospital that served Fort Pike in Lake
Pontchartrain where the Rigolets enters Lake Pontchartrain.
In August 2005, the world watched in horror as New Orleans struggled to
survive the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. As the flood receded, black, smelly
slop — dubbed “toxic soup” by the media — oozed into Lake Pontchartrain on
the northern edge of the city. Full of sewage, dead creatures and rotting debris
from the wounded city, the putrid sludge prompted many piscatorial pundits to
proclaim the death of this rich 4,000-year-old estuary.
As Mark Twain once said, “The rumors of my death have been greatly
exaggerated.” If Pontchartrain could talk, it would say the same thing.
“The water certainly looked and smelled very nasty,” says Chris Piehler, of the
Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. “It was hot lake water mixed with
sewage and urban run-off that went black and septic with rotting vegetation,
decaying matter and bacteria. It was unsanitary, but it was never toxic. We ran
extensive toxicity tests and did not find any toxic contaminants above any level
The storm never really affected fish populations. Fish moved to
uncontaminated areas as tides flushed the system. Nature cleans itself much
faster than man can. Even immediately after the storm, people could catch all
the trout they wanted — if they still had a floating boat and could get it into the
“About 10 days after Katrina hit, we saw more fish in Lake Pontchartrain
than I ever saw in my life and I’ve fished the lake for more than 45 years,” says
Capt. Dudley Vandenborre. “We saw big schools of fish. The lake filled up with
shrimp. Lake Pontchartrain has a tremendous amount of bait. Since Katrina, I’ve
never seen the fishing so good.”
Lake Pontchartrain covers 483,390 acres, or 630 square miles, but the
Lake Pontchartrain Basin covers about 5,000 square miles of open water,
swamps and fresh to brackish marshes teeming with life. Roughly 41 miles long
by 24 miles wide, Lake Pontchartrain averages 10 to 14 feet deep, but some
dredged channels drop to more than 40 feet deep. Second only to Great Salt
Lake in size for inland saltwater systems, Lake Pontchartrain remains mostly
brackish to salty, becoming fresher in the west. Several rivers feed into the
To the east, Pontchartrain connects to Lake Borgne, really a bay bordering
the Gulf of Mexico, through two deep, narrow passes, the Rigolets and Chef
Menteur. “Borgne” comes from the French word for “one-eyed.” Lake Borgne
covers about 162,505 acres of shallow water filled with oyster reefs. “Rigolets”
comes from the French word for “trench.” Fooled into thinking he found the
Mississippi River, Iberville, founder of French Louisiana, dubbed the other pass
Chef Menteur, or “Big Liar.” Iberville named the lake after Comte de
Pontchartrain, an official in the court of King Louis XIV.
To the west, Pass Manchac and the smaller North Pass, connect Lake
Pontchartrain with Lake Maurepas, a 57,900-acre freshwater lake named in
honor of another French statesman. “Manchac” means “back door” in the
Choctaw language. For centuries, people used these waterways to avoid
fighting the treacherous Mississippi River current. Lake Pontchartrain also
connects to the Gulf of Mexico through the 76-mile-long Mississippi River Gulf
Outlet, or MRGO, the 5.5-mile-long Inter Harbor Navigation Canal, also called
the Industrial Canal, in New Orleans and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
Decades ago, few people considered Lake Pontchartrain a trophy trout
lake. Shell dredging disturbed the soft muddy bottom, removing reefs and
ripping out grass beds. Waves carried silt throughout the system, making the
water murky. Shell dredging stopped in 1989. The bottom became more firm and
natural sea grass sprouted again. The filtering sea grass oxygenated and
cleansed the lake. In addition, the state banned gill netting in 1995. By the late
1990s, people began to notice as anglers occasionally landed monster specks.
In January 1999, Kenny Kreeger caught an 11.99-pound speck, the biggest
trout seen in Louisiana since May 1950 when Leon Mattes set the state
standard with a 12.38-pounder. Nine months later, Jason Troullier yanked an
11.24-pounder from the Rigolets. In April 2002, Vandenborre caught a 10.50-
pounder. Another angler landed a Pontchartrain trout approaching 12 pounds,
but refused to submit it through the official record process.
“Even back in the 1970s, trout were always in Lake Pontchartrain,”
Vandenborre remembers. “There was always a group of people who consistently
caught big fish in the lake. I can remember fishing with my dad under the Twin
Bridges and each of us having a 5-pound trout on our lines as people drove
across the bridge to fish elsewhere. Fishing with my grandfather years ago, I
remember catching big trout that couldn’t fit into an ice chest without bending.”
With little other structure in the lake except a few oil platforms along the
north shore, anglers mostly fish the bridges spanning the system. These include
the Causeway, Interstate 10, U.S. Highway 11 and a railroad trestle dating to
1884 that spans Lake Pontchartrain near Highway 11.
The Causeway consists of parallel spans stretching 24 miles across the
widest part of Lake Pontchartrain. The first span opened in 1956, followed by
the second span in 1969. The spans suffered minimal damage from Hurricane
Katrina. The parallel Interstate 10 bridges, known locally as the “Twin Bridges,”
opened in 1965 and run 5.5-mile-long across eastern Lake Pontchartrain. They
suffered severe damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Officially 4.78 miles long, the “Five-Mile” Bridge carrying U.S. 11 opened in
1928 as the Maestri Bridge, named for a former New Orleans mayor. However,
many old-timers still call it the “Masonry” Bridge since builders mixed mortar with
lake water to construct it on the spot. Formally called the Watson-Williams
Pontchartrain Bridge today, it escaped damage from Hurricane Katrina.
The Highway 11 bridge generally produces the biggest trout. By
Vandenborre’s estimate, the Highway 11 bridge produces a 7-pound or better
trout for every 300 fish. In contrast, the trestle produces one for every 8,000 fish
caught with the Twin Bridges producing one 7-pounder for every 5,000 fish
“I’ve probably caught 15 trout in my life over 9 pounds,” the captain says.
“All my big fish came off Highway 11. The trestle has way more fish than any
other bridge, but they are mostly smaller, 1 to 4 pounds. The interstate has
bigger fish than the trestle, a lot in the 1.5- to 5-pound range with an occasional
6- or 7-pounder. The Causeway produces some 6- or 7-pounders, but it doesn’t
produce as many really big fish.”
Vandenborre also recommends the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge, known
locally as the Seabrook Bridge. It doesn’t technically cross the lake by spans the
Inter Harbor Navigation Canal where it enters Lake Pontchartrain near New
Orleans Lakefront Airport. Dredged to allow commercial traffic and scoured by
currents, some holes where the canal enters the lake drop to 90 feet deep.
“When the Seabrook Bridge area is on, it can be the greatest place to fish
in the world,” Vandenborre says. “It’s not uncommon to catch 100 fish in 90
minutes with many in the 3- to 5-pound class. I’ve seen days when four people
catch 100 trout weighing more than 515 pounds.”
Like an inundated concrete forest, miles of barnacle-encrusted pilings
provide cover and current breaks for trout. Around these pilings, Vandenborre
fishes slow and deep. Big trout don’t like to expend too much energy chasing
down fast prey, so he flips heavy jigs to the pilings and works them slowly along
the bottom in 12 to 13 feet of water, almost like a bass angler flipping lures at
Depending upon tide strength, Vandenborre uses 3/8- or 1/2-ounce jig
heads tipped with Deadly Dudleys, his own soft-plastic designs. Typically, he
throws “blue moon,” bluish-gray baits with chartreuse tails. Sometimes, he
throws avocado-colored Deadly Dudleys right against the pilings.
“Bigger fish are always right against the pilings,” Vandenborre says. “At the
bottom of each piling is a bunch of moss. Where every piling hits the mud is an
indentation where the tide washed around it. Big females sit in that little gully.”
As a lure falls, keep the line slack enough to make it fall more erratically, but
watch the line. Fish often hit falling baits. After it hits bottom, pause a moment
before hopping it off the bottom. Let it fall again and repeat every three to eight
seconds. Sometimes, the biggest fish hit with the subtlest taps. Anglers might
not even detect when a potential state-record trout slurps a bait and spits it out
Big trout may prefer live bait. Capt. Mike Gallo of Angling Adventures of
Louisiana suggests giving lunkers a chunk of meat. He uses big livies, such as
7- to 8-inch croakers, menhaden or mullets. With big baits, anglers won’t catch
many fish, but each one could produce the fish of a lifetime.
“A big trout would rather eat one 1-pound mullet than 16 1-ounce shrimp,”
Gallo says. “Then, it’s not hungry for another three days. In the first 18 months
of a trout’s life, about 80 percent of its diet is shrimp. After that, 80 percent of its
diet is finfish.”
When giant trout feed, they typically won’t waste much energy grabbing
their one big meal. Therefore, fish the last minutes of a falling tide on the
downstream side of structure. If that doesn’t work, throw baits parallel to
upstream pilings, letting the tide pull baits under the bridge.
“On any day in Lake Pontchartrain, any bite could produce the new state
record trout, but someone might catch big fish one day and not see them again
for days,” Vandenborre says. “A big trout may only feed for 15 minutes every
three days. The biggest fish I’ve caught have all been during the last 15 minutes
of the falling tide when it wasn’t running very hard.”
For numbers, troll jigs or crankbaits parallel to the bridges on the upstream
side so baits run close to the pilings. Trolling generally targets smaller trout. As
females sit at the bottom of pilings, male trout roam up and down the bridges.
Although the bridges provide the most visible structure, anglers can also
find school trout by watching birds diving upon bait, but solitary lunkers seldom
run in schools. Anglers might catch some big trout lurking around little-known
reefs away from the bridges. Katrina created many new reefs, dumping cars,
boats, bridge chunks and even houses into the lake.
During hot weather, trout seek the deeper, cooler waters of the Rigolets
and Chef Menteur passes between Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne. Both
passes average about 35 feet deep, but can hold water more than 60 feet deep.
Smaller and narrower than the Rigolets, the Chef probably receives less
pressure. U.S. Highway 90, a road dating to 1930, also crosses both passes. A
new Rigolets bridge opened in January 2008, but the old bridge remains across
the Chef. On the Lake Borgne side, another old railroad trestle crosses both the
Chef Menteur and the Rigolets passes.
On an incoming tide, most people fish near the U.S. Highway 90 bridges
that cross the passes. During the falling tide, most people fish near the railroad
crossing the passes farther to the east.
Near where the Rigolets enters the lake but inside Lake Pontchartrain, good
numbers of trout stay near the “hospital wall.” Situated across Highway 90 from
Fort Pike, an 19th century brick fort, the hospital served the soldiers during the
Civil War. Today, barely submerged rocks and other debris mark the hospital
“The Rigolets has good numbers of 1.5- to 2-pound fish, but two years after
the storm, we caught a lot of 7-pound or better trout in the Rigolets,”
Vandenborre says. “The mouth of Chef Pass produces many 2.5-pound fish.
During slack tide, big fish sit in deep water. I’ve caught fish in water 45 feet
deep, but generally, I fish the drop-off edges 20 to 30 feet deep. When the tide
runs strong, don’t even bother to fish that area.”
In late summer, trout also move into Lake Borgne. Several oil platforms in
Lake Borgne offer trout good structure. People can also fish islands to the east
or the marshes that surround Lake Borgne.
To book trips, call Capt. Mike Gallo at 877-4-AAOFLA, Capt. Dudley
Vandenborre at 985-847-1924, or Capt. Eric Dumas of Living the Dream Guide
Service at 985.705.1244.
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